Iraq’s al-Maliki visits Arbil to mend ties

Iraq’s al-Maliki visits Arbil to mend ties

Iraq’s al-Maliki visits Arbil to mend ties

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (R) shakes hands with Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani upon his arrival in Arbil, 350 kilometers north of Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, June 9, 2013. AP Photo/ Ceerwan Aziz

Iraq’s premier led a landmark Cabinet meeting in the country’s Kurdish region yesterday to defuse tensions linked to a multitude of disputes diplomats warn are among its biggest threats to stability.

The long-running rows have provoked sharp exchanges between the two sides, and while no tangible measures were agreed at the meeting, the mere fact that talks took place was seen as a positive sign.

Following the Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani did “not have a magic wand to fix all these problems in one go.” “But it is necessary to have a willingness to solve them,” al-Maliki said in a joint news conference with Barzani, with whom he has traded harsh words in recent years.

The Iraqi premier said the Arbil talks would be followed by further visits by both sides.

Barzani, meanwhile, said the Cabinet session marked “an important visit” and described it as a “start for removing all the problems.”

The Cabinet session was followed by talks between Cabinet ministers and Kurdish regional ministers and a direct meeting between al-Maliki and Barzani.

“Our expectations should not be too high,” said KGB Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa. “The ball is in the court of the federal government in Baghdad.”

Al-Maliki’s spokesman Ali Mussawi told Agence France-Presse that the Arbil meeting would be followed by a Cabinet session in the western province of Anbar, where anti-government protests have been raging since December. He did not specify a date.

The meeting comes just days after the Interior Ministry in Baghdad issued a strongly worded statement calling for Kurdish forces to withdraw from disputed territory, threatening a fragile peace between the two sides’ militaries.

Oil dispute

In recent years, the Kurds have signed contracts on their own terms with the likes of Exxon Mobil, Total and Chevron Corp, antagonizing Baghdad, which insists it alone is entitled to control exploration of Iraq’s oil.

KRG used to ship crude through a pipeline network controlled by Baghdad, but exports via that channel stopped last December due to a row over payments for oil companies operating in the northern enclave.

The region says the Constitution allows it to exploit the reserves under its soil, and it is building the final leg of an independent oil export pipeline that could allow it to break its reliance on a share of the federal budget.

Land is another major sticking point. The Iraqi army and Kurdish “peshmarga” troops have both deployed to an oil-rich band of territory over which both claim jurisdiction.

Easing relations with the Kurds would help al-Maliki, who is facing an intensified campaign by Sunni Islamist insurgents and months of protests by Sunni leaders who accuse the Shiite premier of marginalizing them.